If the fight to halt school budget cuts in Obama’s Democratic heartland succeeds it would be a huge boost for unions
Last month, approximately 90% of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members voted for strike action. Only 1.82% voted against. This was a shock to the local administration.
Not only is this the heart of Obama country, where unions are expected to play ball with the Democrats in an election year. It is also a city where, thanks to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, teachers are not allowed to strike unless more than 75% of union members vote for it.
Yet it is not just the local establishment that will be unsettled here. This is getting national attention in the US, and a strike could be an embarrassment to President Obama. Moreover, it could re-ignite the American labour movement at a time of global unrest.
The basis of this dispute is what is innocuously termed “school reform”. This is a process of privatisation and union-busting. Since the 1990s, Chicago has been a laboratory for such reforms, which have been rolled out across the country. The programme enjoys the support of the Democratic leadership as well as leading pro-Obama liberals such as Davis Guggenheim, whose film Waiting for Superman was a lengthy attack on teaching unions and a tribute to private schools.
Chicago intends to open 60 new privatised, non-union “charter” schools in the next five years. Public schools are being closed to make way for this change and capital spending has been slashed. The CTU’s new leadership has been driving a campaign to tackle chronic underfunding in Chicago schools, and broaden the curriculum. They describe the system as one of “educational apartheid”, and demand an elected school board which reflects the needs of the city’s population.